Designing such high-profile projects as The Enchanted Island, Two Boys, and Satyagraha for the Metropolitan Opera, the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, and the Tony-winning Broadway production of War Horse, Ben Pearcy has upped the benchmark for the visual wow-factor in theatre, opera, and architectural projects around the world. Creative director for 59 Productions, Pearcy—who also does lighting design—works from 59's US headquarters in New York City, and will appear as a featured speaker at the Broadway Projection Master Classes, held at NYU, June 2-3, 2014.
1) How did you get into the projection design world?
I was trained as a lighting designer, but always took a strong interest in projection. I started out with Pani projectors, which I would take care of when Ken Billington was lighting an opera. I was attracted to them by their versatility— I loved the way you could bolt on all sorts of attachments to the front of them, enabling a variety of uses. When Riverdance changed from slide projection to video projection, I got to dip my toes into the world of video and animation design. Midway through my career as a lighting designer I spent 10 years working with James Turrell, who taught me what light really is, and about precision. And when 59 Productions came to NY to do War Horse, I met with Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, and the notion of a creative partnership came up almost immediately. They were ostensibly looking for a programmer, but I had bigger ideas, and that has proved to be a great relationship on all sides.
2) How does technology inform your design choices?
The technologies we use are our pigments, our brushes, our canvas. They can be simultaneously restrictive and liberating, just as they can be for any other creative discipline. I try not to make choices based on technology, but rather to use technology to solve the problems my choices create. I always approach a new technological challenge with the assumption that it can be solved somehow. I haven’t been disappointed yet.
3) What is the most challenging project you have done and why?
I always hope my next project is the most challenging. The hardest projects are always the ones where you don’t make a connection with the director or other designers. That synergy doesn’t always happen, and it’s always a disappointment when it doesn’t. I’ve been lucky that that hasn’t happened to me very often. The biggest show I’ve worked on was the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics— it’s not often a few billion people see something you’ve done, especially something you only get to do once.
4) What is the best advice you've ever gotten…and the worst?
The best advice? “Ben, you should join the Domino (my high school drama) Club.” (Robert Cronin, at the Episcopal Academy, in 1986.)
The worst? “Don’t buy Apple's stock. They’re going out of business.”
5) What advice would you give young designers entering the field today?
Do summer theatre. Almost everyone I work with now (and as it happens, love) I either met or met because of someone I met working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival or the Santa Fe Opera. Don’t be afraid to assist other designers. Don’t underestimate the value of assisting on big shows—the experience you gain there will serve you very well when it’s your turn to design them. I once got some great advice from Tom Skelton. I was at the time debating whether or not to go to graduate school to get my MFA in lighting design. He told me that I would have been better off studying something else in undergrad like architecture, art history, literature, or some other discipline that would have relevance in my chosen field, but would widen my understanding of the world in general. Then go to grad school to focus your study on one of the design disciplines. It was too late for me (I already had my BFA in lighting design from Boston University) but it is great advice nonetheless.